Bill Robertson, Ph.D., professor of teacher education, right, and Tania Sanchez, collaborated on two issues of a four-part graphic novel that aims to teach scientific principles to middle school students. Sanchez, the books’ artist, earned her bachelor’s degree in mathematical sciences in December 2019. Photo: Laura Trejo / UTEP Communications
A longtime professor at The University of Texas at El Paso known for his academic creativity has taken a two-dimensional approach to make STEM concepts relevant and relatable to middle school students.
William Robertson, Ph.D., professor of teacher education, has written a 24-page “graphic novel,” or comic book, to give teachers another tool to demonstrate principles of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). “Dr. Skateboard’s Action Science: Simple Machines” is the first of a four-part series to be produced in English and Spanish. The main character is Dr. Skateboard, a persona that Robertson developed in 2000 to promote science education.
The UTEP professor, who has ridden a skateboard for more than 40 years, said that the comic is a curriculum supplement that could benefit students from the upper elementary grades through high school. In the past, he has produced Action Science videos of performers who use skateboards and BMX (bicycle motocross) bikes to demonstrate STEM education principles.
In the first comic, published in August 2019, Dr. Skateboard narrates and demonstrates, along with a few friends with a bike or skateboard, a number of simple machines such as levers and inclined planes that highlight physics concepts. The same characters will explore the notions of force, motion and Newton’s Laws of Motion in future books.
“My hope is that this comic inspires and engages the students and motivates them to learn about STEM concepts that are part of everyday life; things they like to do,” Robertson said. “If we can excite the students about school and make them college ready, we’ll be successful.”
Juliette Caire, executive director of UTEP’s GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs), has worked with Robertson for more than 10 years and praised his imagination and dedication to promote science among secondary educators.
She said Robertson told her in July 2019 about his comic book concept and she ordered 3,000 of the books for GEAR UP, a national program funded by the U.S. Department of Education to help middle school students from low-income families prepare for college. The most recent grant was for a collaboration with the Ysleta Independent School District so she distributed the books among nine YISD middle schools. Caire said the books are a more relevant way to reach that age group.
“They like and appreciate comic books and can learn from them,” said Caire, who joined GEAR UP in 2001. “This is good for teachers, too. It reinforces what they do in math and science.”
Nichole Saucedo, an eighth-grade science teacher at Eastwood Middle School, said she planned to share the graphic novel with her students before winter break and added that it would help them with science concepts that often are difficult to understand.
She said the colorful comic book is a fun way for students to incorporate their prior knowledge and experiences and make connections to science. She said she liked that the book focused more on graphics than words, which will help some of her non-native English speakers.
“Any time you can tie into someone’s interests is beneficial,” said Saucedo, who earned her bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies from UTEP in 2009. “Those who enjoy what they’re doing will be more involved.”
She looked forward to the other issues in the series, which will fit in with her curriculum.
“Those future books are going to be awesome,” she said.
Robertson said he had noted a growing trend amongst educators in the use of graphic novels during the past decade, but the focus usually was the literary arts and not science. He wanted to pursue the project about four years ago, but put it on hold as he took on different administrative tasks in the College of Education, which included an assignment as interim dean for one year.
When he rejoined the faculty in fall 2018, he informally floated the comic book idea with the leaders in UTEP’s Creative Studios, who assigned the project to Tania Sanchez, a senior mathematical sciences major, graphic designer and a fellow skateboarder. The team created the storyboards during the spring 2019 semester. In September, he used his graphic novel as part of a professional development workshop with 30 YISD middle school teachers and the book’s active learning approach got a positive response.
“This models a creative way instructors can teach physics, which is difficult to learn for both teachers and students,” Robertson said. “The teachers appreciate the alternative resources for student-centered, active learning physical science instruction.”
Sanchez, an El Paso native who joined Creative Studios in 2016, said she learned a lot from this collaborative project as an artist and as a skateboarder.
“It was a nice experience for me because I was able to tap into things I know and enjoy,” she said. “I also think my work got better as an artist from my line work to my selection of color to my attention to detail.”
Sanchez also said the students would benefit from the book.
“I think the book will grab their attention,” she said. “Even if they are not interested in science, I think they will find the comic enjoyable.”
Robertson said his next comic, “Forces,” and the Spanish version of “Simple Machines” are ready to go. He plans to share his use of comic books in a presentation at the Lilly Conference – Teaching for Active and Engaged Learning in February 2020 in San Diego, California. To finish the spring 2020 semester, Robertson plans to lead a team of Action Science performers to the nine YISD campuses in May 2020 to offer demonstrations of physical science principles.
Author: Daniel Perez – UTEP Communications